During a dinner conversation in French one night, the word “bobo” came up and I asked what it meant. Turns out it’s a portmanteau of “bourgeois” and “bohemian” used by David Brooks in his Bobos in Paradise, published in 2000. The term wasn’t familiar to me, so I needed further explanation.
My companions said that a bobo was a person who spends money without wanting to seem like they do; who buys organic ’cause it’s cool AND it’s the right thing to do; who is vociferously involved in global issues.
My first thought was that the best English version of this was a pretentious asshole, but that seemed harsh. The second thing that came to mind was the targets of Stuff White People Like and that’s when I hit upon “hipster” as maybe the most polite version of bobo. The New York Times backs me up here. In an article I read the day after my perplexing conversation, there was this little gem
[T]he quartier has attracted more and more artists and writers, young couples and hipsters (or bobos — “bourgeois bohemians” — in Parisian parlance).
What’s kind of funny (in a sad way) is that Brooks had initially intended the term to be used for people who would now be in their 50s, but it was totally co-opted by Europeans to mean something else. So, we’re talking about a term coined by a Canadian to describe post-baby boomer Americans, used by European media to describe the newest young professionals and then made mainstream.
One of the problems with being a native English speaker in an international world is that you’re often confronted with meanings and uses for English words that don’t match the original definition. This phenomenon is both interesting and incredibly frustrating.